‘Chilling The Press Has Consistently Outraged Me’

Linda Tirado’s lawsuit against the police who cost her an eye defends all journalists

Linda Tirado, a 39-year-old writer and photographer who covers poverty and social justice movements, has been blind in one eye for more than a year. That’s a year with only one eye to use to evaluate her surroundings while covering a protest. That’s a year with only one eye to watch her 8- and 11-year-old daughters.

Tirado, a former professional chef, has only recently started to use knives again, and she can no longer drive a car. “I don’t run into doorframes as much,” she said.

Her husband is a Marine combat veteran; “he was trained to be the injured one, and I was trained to be the caregiver,” she said. Noting that the roles have been reversed, she added, “I picked the kids’ dad well.”

In fact, Tirado told FAIR in a phone interview, the incident has actually given her a new perspective as a photographer. “Looking through the lens of a camera mimics the vision that I used to have; I have full range,” she said. “The lens is a physically adaptive device.” Seeing how people around her respond to her eyepatch has given her a new insight, she said, into how people view visible disabilities.

‘Serious And Troubling’

The last photographs Tirado took with her camera before she was shot in the face with a rubber-jacketed bullet show Minneapolis police aiming at her during the Black Lives Matter protests in response to the killing of George Floyd (CNN, 6/12/20). Her lawsuit argues that her civil rights were violated by the police and city, but if she wins, it has broader implications for journalists in a time of police violence against the press.

Earlier this year, US District Chief Judge John Tunheim allowed her case, calling her claims “serious and troubling,” despite a joint effort by both the city and the police union to have the case dismissed. Tirado’s suit charges that “police officers targeted her and fired a foam bullet at her face, even though she said and had documentation that she was a member of the news media.”

Police, she maintained, have an ‘unofficial custom of unlawful conduct toward journalists’ during the protests”;  the four police officers who shot at her did so to “deprive journalists of constitutional rights” (Star-Tribune, 2/24/21).

Anti-Media Police Violence

Tirado’s case is grave, but she isn’t alone. Tirado said that she is a part of an ongoing group chat that has identified nearly 60 other people who sustained critical eye injuries at the hands of police while attending BLM protests (Mother Jones, 6/2/21). The London Independent (7/9/20) reported during the Black Lives Matter uprising of 2020 that

at least 50 journalists in the US have been arrested during Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the US, while dozens of others have also been injured by rubber bullets, pepper spray and tear gas.

And the brutality during the George Floyd protests of 2020 was only the latest expression of this kind of anti-media police violence. Al Jazeera journalists were teargassed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, while covering the 2014 protests against the police killing of Michael Brown (AP, 6/24/21). Police shot a journalist while simply conducting an interview during the anti-pipeline protests at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation (Vox, 11/4/16).

And, of course, the Tirado case brings up the memory of Ruben Salazar, the Mexican-American journalist killed by a Los Angeles police projectile while covering an anti–Vietnam War protest. Salazar’s death was seen not just as an attack on the press, but against the Chicano community in general, an incident brilliantly captured by Hunter S. Thompson (Rolling Stone, 4/29/71).

A Step Toward Accountability

Tirado’s case may be just one of many, but her suit going forward is a major step toward actually achieving some kind of accountability. The case won’t go to trial until late 2022 (the pandemic has backed up an already notoriously slow justice system), but her lawyers are confident that the evidence they have compiled is compelling.

Unless a settlement is reached, a win for Tirado in federal court would not simply just be for her. A verdict in her favor would be a part of federal case law, and a precedent that journalists who face police violence could reference. That’s a legal weapon press freedom advocates would utilize to inspire real change in how American police treat protesters and the press.

“This is a federal case under the Civil Rights Act; any decision of the court will be a persuasive authority,” Tirado’s lawyer, Tai-Heng Cheng, told FAIR. Cheng said a decision in his client’s favor “will be a case that will be referred to by journalists who are victims all around the country,” in hopes that it would “precipitate change in how [police] conduct their operations.”

“The case has already resulted in what I would argue is a fairer system; I think that is ultimately the goal here,” Tirado said. While she insists that she should be made whole—“I should not have to incur these expenses,” she said—the broader issue of the “chilling of the press has been the thing that has consistently outraged me.” While losing an eye has been “life-altering,” Tirado said, she “wouldn’t be so mad about it if it had been in a hunting accident.”

Transcending ‘He Said, She Said’

While Tirado’s case has been covered by corporate media as well as press freedom organizations, very little of this coverage connects her injury to the fact that she is precisely the kind of inequality-minded reporter, earthed in her own experience of poverty, that the US press desperately needs more of. Tirado’s journalism transcends the “he said, she said” mainstream; her work is both personal and outward-looking, fighting against both poverty itself and popular misconceptions about the subject of US poverty.

David Shipler in the New York Times (12/26/14) called her book Hand to Mouth, which recounts her own experience as part of the working poor, “refreshingly infuriated.” Shipler offered some media self-reflection: “It’s rare to hear directly from the poor. Usually their voices are filtered through journalists or activists. So Tirado’s raw clarity is startling.”

The candor in her writing is a reflection of her no-filter, working-class attitude that has a backhanded welcomeness to a profession too often hung up on formalities and a pretense of disinterest. Upon hearing FAIR’s first question, which was about how she had been coping with her disability, she laughed, “Wow, hell of an opener there, buddy.”

Another review (Guardian, 9/24/14) noted that her book is an indictment of the myth that “the only barrier between her and success is her own mentality.” This makes her a kind of anti–J.D. Vance, the venture capitalist whose book Hillbilly Elegy situated rural poverty as a problem of culture (although the author has now remade himself as a nationalist demagogue in the mold of Donald Trump—CNN, 7/6/21; Atlantic, 7/14/21). Vance, of course, has long enjoyed far more media attention than Tirado—Fox News host Tucker Carlson loves him (Business Insider, 7/2/21)—which suggests what kind of populism corporate media find genuinely threatening.

Obviously, there is little reason to think the police who blinded Tirado knew much about her, besides the fact that she dared to cover a protest against police violence. But her maiming by police highlights that the attack on Black Lives Matter is an attack on all oppressed people who publicly register their discontent.